Jill Daum’s first experience as a playwright was as part of the six-woman team that wrote Mom’s the Word, a smash examination of motherhood that made its debut in 1995 and has since been produced on five continents. And for her solo return to the page, Forget About Tomorrow, she’s chosen a topic that’s equally close to her own experience: living with a partner who has developed early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.
The link, Daum says in a telephone interview from her Vancouver home, is that both plays deal with everyday stories.
“When you lift the lid off the life of your average person, there are often stories of strength,” she explains. “And when you find the truth of what happens to people in our everyday lives, it can be unifying. And the humour, too: you can laugh at the same things and unite that way. So it’s more about using personal stories as a springboard… I feel that all those years of Mom’s the Word gave me confidence to move in that direction with this play.”
What gave Daum the need to write Forget About Tomorrow, though, was a situation far less joyous than motherhood. In 2014, her husband John Mann, himself a gifted actor, songwriter, and singer with the band Spirit of the West, was diagnosed with the disease, which now finds him living in a long-term-care facility, largely unresponsive to his surroundings.
“It sucks, huh?” Daum says, sighing. “The decline is just wretched.”
But while Mann struggles to communicate, Daum has found new urgency in her writing, and perhaps even reason to hope.
First, though, one thing needs to be made clear: Forget About Tomorrow incorporates elements of Mann and Daum’s story, but it is not their story alone. At the time Daum began work on the script, she was in two support groups: one for aspiring writers, and another for persons whose partners had early-onset Alzheimer’s. The first offered helpful criticism, the second a way to lever Daum’s emerging script out of the purely personal and into something more universal.
“I used [others’] experiences to help with the story.…And I certainly picked up facts from lots of different people,” Daum explains. “The other thing, too, is that when you meet that many people that are going through the same thing, you find some things that people feel are really important that you kind of have to say.”
Such as, she continues, the fact that the person you love remains alive inside the Alzheimer’s patient’s blank shell. “Their soul, their spirit, endures, no matter what’s happening to the brain,” she says. “We all cling to that, and the person with Alzheimer’s can cling to that, too.…That’s just an example of something that I found was kind of important to everybody.”
Daum credits her writers’ group, the Wet Ink Collective, with providing useful feedback on the emerging play, although she admits that she had to keep her private life private during the writing process. “I was writing about this woman whose husband has an early-onset Alzheimer’s diagnosis, but they didn’t know that that was actually happening in my life,” she notes. “And I didn’t want them to know, because there was no way they… They wouldn’t have critiqued me honestly. They would have had so much sympathy and pity for me that I just felt they’d go, ‘Oh, that’s really good, Jill. That’s really good.’ So the fact that they liked it, not knowing that I was really living it, helped.”
There was a third pillar during the making of Daum’s play: Mann himself. Forget About Tomorrow includes the last songs the singer-guitarist ever composed, one being a gorgeous love ballad, the other Mann’s own wry look at his disappearing faculties. Daum adds that he was an enthusiastic supporter of her efforts for as long as he was able.
“At first, he could still read the scenes with me, and that was kind of fun,” she says. “But mostly his input was a passion for making sure that it happened. He would just say, ‘You’ve got to do it, Jill. You’ve just got to. Don’t worry about me; you go upstairs and write. I’ll be okay. I believe in you; I believe you can do this.’ He was so supportive and passionate about it actually happening, and he was really jazzed up about writing the songs.
“He was trying to squeeze out as much as he could with what he had left,” Daum continues. “And then the illness kind of takes over the brain.…So he just became somebody who really lived in the moment. But he saw the last reading and he loved it. And it was so beautiful, because when the reading was over, he stood up and clapped. People don’t give standing ovations at a reading, but John did! It was so beautiful, and he just loved it.”
After a successful run at Victoria’s Belfry Theatre, Forget About Tomorrow comes to the Arts Club’s BMO Theatre Centre this month. And so the play is out of Daum’s hands and into those of its stars—notably Jennifer Lines and Craig Erickson, who play a married couple facing the same challenges she and Mann did, and still do. But the experience of writing its script will stay with her the rest of her life.
“I learned that if something terrible happens to you, something terrible and tragic, it doesn’t mean that you become damaged and tragic,” she says. “It can transform you in positive ways, because you can get stronger, you can become wiser and more empathetic. No one wants to grow that way—but growth is possible.”
Forget About Tomorrow runs at the Arts Club’s Goldcorp Stage at the BMO Theatre Centre from Thursday (March 1) to March 25.